Becoming a Vegetarian to Remember Grandma
By Andrew Lam
Last year for a period
of a month, I became a vegetarian. Some people won't
eat meat because they think it's cruel to animals,
or because of health concerns. My reason is a little
different: it is love.
I simply wanted to honor my grandmother's memory
by not eating meat. A devout Buddhist, grandma spent
a large part of her life as a vegetarian, and some
of my fondest childhood memories in Vietnam were
sharing a meal with her.
In fact, as a child, I learned how to appreciate
food not from fancy dishes my mother regularly whipped
up, but from the simple meals my grandmother prepared.
In her presence a piece of crunchy green pickled
eggplant was incredibly delicious, and fried tofu
dipped in sweetened soy sauce delectable.
with grandma would come with ghost stories and fairy
tales she knew from her childhood in rural North
Vietnam. And considering that grandma was the matriarch
of our large clan with 42 grandchildren, I had felt
extraordinarily privileged to dine alone with her.
After dinner, it would be time for prayers. I would
help her light incense and candles and put up plates
of fruits for offerings to Buddha and our ancestors.
For an hour or so, she would chant and beat on a
wooden fish, a percussion instrument made of a hollow
wooden block originally used by Buddhist priests
to beat rhythm when chanting scriptures.
Grandma passed away more than a decade ago. Now
I am an adult living in cosmopolitan San Francisco,
and incense smoke, wooden fish, vegetarian suppers
and ghost stories are the rituals of a distant past.
But then one morning it occurred to me that I could
no longer recall the sound of my grandmother's voice
and it left me feeling bereft. So I decided to become
a vegetarian for a month. It's something grandma
would do as a way to honor those who died before
her. And I could do no less.
In a city famous for its dining experience, this
was not easy. I turned down several dinner parties
for fear of offending the hosts. I avoided walking
by restaurants where enticing aromas wafted in the
air. My best friend wondered if I was going through
a mid-life crisis. And gossip in my circle had it
that I had shaved my head and was about to join
a Buddhist monastery.
In truth, I wanted to break my resolve many times.
What got me through that month-long diet was this
particular memory of my grandmother. Confined to
a wheelchair in her last few years in a convalescent
home in San Jose, Calif., and suffering from senility,
she had largely forgotten who I was. But not what
she was about.
I see again her trembling hand as she poked at the
mash potato and green beans on her plate at lunchtime
one afternoon, avoiding the meatloaf in the middle.
Frail and sickly, she nevertheless meticulously
kept a lunar calendar on which Buddhist holidays
were honored by Buddhist sutras recitation and consumption
of vegetarian meals. It was her way, and grandma
followed it through to the very end.
And so for a month last year I, too, followed her
way. I fried tofu, steamed vegetable, cooked rice
and prepared soy sauce. I lit incense for my ancestors.
I invited friends who wanted to taste vegetarian
food. And as we ate, I told them ghost stories I
knew as a child.
Then one late evening, while dining alone and in
solemnity, the lyrical sound of her laughter suddenly
came back to me. I savored grandma's favorite pickled
eggplant. I remembered the dead. (New America Media)